THEY say January is the most depressing of the months. Understandable. You’re on the come down after Christmas and New Year frivolities, it’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s several months before you can look forward to summer holidays.
In 2001, from out of nowhere, January 4 was one of my favourite days of the entire year. I didn’t expect it, nobody did, but there it was. My beaming smile hurting my cheeks as I was totally unprepared for any smiling until much closer to May. It was an impromptu smile, one that hits you like an Indian summer, or a Lucas Leiva goal.
The flash grin came as a result of the news that Liverpool had secured the signature of Jari Litmanen from Barcelona. In the days before football hipsters, it was actually fine to like European players just because they were good at football. You didn’t have to prefix it: “I don’t want to sound like one of those football hipster wankers, but that Jari Litmanen’s pretty good you know.”
You couldn’t watch every European game you fancy like you can today, but when teams or players were brilliant you would usually see enough to know. Of all the Dutch football beamed over here in the mid-90s, it’s fair to say that about 98 per cent of it was of Ajax battering someone, and most of it was showcasing Litmanen being miles better than Cantona, Klinsmann and the rest.
Then there was the Champions League, before BT Sport and before Gazprom, where you got to see what these players had against the best of the best, and it turned out that Ajax were also pretty good when compared to the great AC Milan and Barcelona sides.
In 1995 it was Patrick Kluivert who scored the winner against Milan in the final, but it was Litmanen’s six goals during the tournament that got them there. A year later he scored in the final, and also in the penalty shootout, even though it wasn’t enough to stop Juventus from winning. He was a bonafide world star, scoring nine to comfortably win the competition’s golden boot.
The following summer I was at a five-a-side tournament and remember a stall where someone was selling the tackiest looking knock-off footy shirts for about 20 quid. There were all kinds of European ones, Milan ones with Maldini on the back, Real Madrid ones with Raul, Juventus with Del Piero, but there was only one gleaming back at my wide 11-year old eyes. A white and red beauty with Litmanen on the back. I gave it the old Wayne’s World, “It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine.”
Turns out it wouldn’t as my dad quite rightly pointed out that he could probably paint one on a white t-shirt and make it look more legit, so I had to settle for an ice-cream.
The years went by and I continued to have to watch Litmanen from afar. When he moved to Barcelona in 1999 I was sure that he would go on to be a club legend at the Camp Nou, but it never quite worked out for him, plagued by injuries during his time there. It also didn’t help that he was brought in by former Ajax boss Louis van Gaal, who froze Litmanen out at Barca when he decided he couldn’t run enough for him.
In May 1999, Liverpool signed Sami Hyypia, who would of course go on to become one of the greatest defenders of all time at the club. I didn’t know this at the time of course, and so in my brain I’d decided that the best thing about signing Hyypia was that he was Litmanen’s international teammate, and while away with Finland Big Sami could keep putting the idea in his head about Anfield, and how lovely it is.
It was fanciful, and I don’t remember particularly believing it myself, but then it happened.
On January 4 2001, Liverpool announced the signing of Jari Litmanen on a free transfer. These were the days before Twitter, before ITKs, and I was too young to hear it from ‘Info Billy’ down the pub. I was shocked. Pleasantly shocked, and my ad-hoc smirking could not be contained.
Litmanen apparently declared that he had always had a soft spot for the Reds, which felt a bit more genuine than Robbie Keane’s claims years later, and he reportedly asked for the iconic number seven shirt, so sure was he that he could live up to the hype.
Sadly, Vlad Smicer had it already, and so he settled for number 37, which quickly became my favourite number. So much so that I still have an email address I use to this day with ‘37’ in it for that very reason.
He was on the bench six days later for the first leg of the League Cup semi final defeat at Crystal Palace. He came on to set up Smicer for a goal back that showed a glimpse of what he was capable of, and the excitement grew immediately.
My favourite non-LFC player was now an LFC player. My worlds had come together. This was what football utopia felt like, this was how it felt when doves cry, and so it was therefore a shame that we never really got to see THE Jari Litmanen play for Liverpool.
There had been suggestions from Spain that the Finn had been a spectacular failure at Barca. Injuries had taken their toll on a player who had previously glided past tackles like it was as simple as breathing, but I told myself that it was merely a bad fit. The wrong player at the wrong club at the wrong time. It would be different at Liverpool.
Most fans were just like me, just giddy to have a player of Litmanen’s calibre at the club during a time when we were on the up, on the verge of winning a historic treble, with youngsters like Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen ruling the world. In my head, a partnership of Litmanen and Owen could have been the greatest thing the game had seen since Kenny and Rush.
As it turned out the partnership of Heskey and Owen was pretty good that season, but Litmanen just couldn’t get going. Used sporadically partially due to the form of others, but mostly due to his apparent lack of fitness. Gerard Houllier once suggested that Litmanen was incapable of completing 90 minutes, which is why he spent most of his time at Anfield on the bench or in the stands.
There were of course moments. Moments that took the breath away and gave a glimpse into the faded genius of a once world-class player. A screamer against Tottenham, a wonderful assist for Heskey against Man City, a terrific individual effort against Leverkusen, embarrassing his former Ajax mate Edwin van Der Sar at Fulham and numerous crucial penalties, almost Milner-esque in their perfection.
Litmanen spent just 18 months at the club, and they weren’t as successful as I had imagined they would have been, but for a brief spell, my favourite player played for my favourite team, and it was still brilliant to see.
He went back to Ajax for a bit, and then to Finland, Germany and Sweden, before Roy Hodgson took him to Fulham in 2008, signing a player who had proven too far past his prime for the Premier League six years prior. Good old Roy.
Litmanen was a player ahead of his time. Under van Gaal at Ajax he had been the central cog in a relentless winning machine, but he had done it with such grace and elegance that you didn’t notice how much work was going into it. Remind you of a certain modern day team?
We’re all loving Jürgen Klopp’s Reds at the moment, and when the inevitable question comes up about which former Liverpool player in their prime would you have in this current team, I say Litmanen. Not his prime at Liverpool, but his prime at Ajax. He would have been absolutely perfect for this team, and would have torn Moyes’s Sunderland to shreds.
Parts of Finland are very cold and very dark. In January, England is very cold and very dark. But in January 2001, a lad from Finland made the sun shine for me, and Jari ‘Lit’ up the football…
… in a way that Gazprom never could.